McConnell tries to salvage Senate majority with court vote
WASHINGTON (AP) - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spent a year preparing his Republican counterparts for this moment. He told them the approval of a Supreme Court is the "most important" vote they will get as senators, the chance to make "seismic changes" that will stay with the nation for generations to come.
Now, three weeks before election day, the GOP leader needs this moment more than ever.
The hearings to confirm President Donald Trump's Supreme Court candidate are due to begin Monday, giving Republicans one last chance to save their Senate majority by drawing the attention of the White House and its COVID-19 response to the long-standing goal of the Direct GOP to create a conservative court.
The arrival of Conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett presents a long-term opportunity to bring wayward Republican voters back to their knees. As Trump's stand drops in internal polls, McConnell hopes to remind voters why they stayed with Trump in 2016: the promise of yet another conservative judiciary to rule over access to abortion and other big issues. Democrats are within reach to take control of the Senate on November 3rd.
"It will do what it will - power the grassroots," said Doug Deason, a wealthy Dallas donor who chairs the fundraiser for Trump in North Texas and helps Republicans in Congress.
That is the optimistic view. It's mostly coming from Republicans and supporters who are still pouring millions of dollars into campaigning efforts to save McConnell's slender 53-47 GOP majority.
The grumpier assessment is that McConnell is simply trying to grab whatever he can before he and his majority are out the door.
"To me, it just means a clear lack of confidence in Donald Trump and these races in the Senate," said Stuart Stevens, a seasoned Republican strategist who led Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign and now seeks to defeat Trump.
Democrats must get at least three seats to win the Senate majority if presidential candidate Joe Biden is elected, or four if Trump wins a second term because the party's vice president can vote as a tie breaker in the Senate.
What began as an electoral cycle with just a handful of senators at risk has grown into a growing Senate map stretching from Alaska across the west between the mountains to the deep south as Republicans face major challenges while Democrats see few.
Alerts blink red during Republican Senate campaigns after Trump's overwhelming debates and the COVID diagnosis drove up the party's poll numbers, particularly among the suburban white women and mothers who voted for him in 2016.
One Republican who advised on Senate and House races called it the worst presidential dive in U.S. history - one that takes the entire GOP ticket with it. It is something that no amount of money can fix, said the person. The strategist, like others interviewed for this story, was granted anonymity in order to openly assess the situation.
In group meetings and one-on-one, McConnell began raising the prospect of a Supreme Court position last year, such a person close to the leader and familiar with the private conversations.
He told them the legislation may introduce incremental changes, but as senators, they have few options to make the more substantial and sustained shift that comes with a lifetime court appointment.
"He is personally determined to bring great Supreme Court justice to justice," said David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth, who has worked with McConnell on judicial nominations for years, back on Ronald Reagan's failed Robert Bork nomination to court.
With the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18, the plan was already set. Only two GOP senators shied away from quick confirmation.
The hearings will spotlight Senator Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Justice Committee, who faces his own re-election in South Carolina, where Democrat Jaime Harrison is raising millions to defeat him.
The panel consists of Thom Tillis of North Carolina who was in a tough race until opponent Cal Cunningham was embroiled in a texting scandal. and Texas Senator John Cornyn, a party leader, suddenly puts up a challenger; and Senator Joni Ernst, who is standing for re-election in Iowa.
The affirmation battle could also strengthen Senator Martha McSally in Arizona, who is lagging behind ex-astronaut Mark Kelly, and contain the sudden decline in GOP strongholds - Steve Daines in Montana, Kelly Loeffler in Georgia or Kansas, where Senator Pat Roberts is retiring said strategists.
On the other hand, the court battle is less helpful for Sens. Susan Collins in Maine and Cory Gardner in Colorado and Ernst in Iowa, where Trump was already less popular and is now hurting the GOP ticket.
Even distant races like Mike Espy's challenge to Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith in Mississippi are getting attention and suddenly costing Republicans money to defend themselves.
The television hearings are likely to raise money for the Democrats, with Vice-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris assuming her own central role as a member of the judiciary committee.
McConnell's strategy is the opposite of the strategy Republicans used to increase voter turnout in 2016 when they blocked Barack Obama's candidates nine months before the election and said it should be up to the new president to decide. No Supreme Court confirmation in history comes as close to a presidential election as this one.
This time, a lot is about securing your own legacy and turning the judiciary into what allies call the "McConnell Court" to give its majority a landing site after four tumultuous years with Trump.
Republican senators were indelibly associated with Trump's political movement, so historian Douglas Brinkley has called it a "shrinkage" of the Senate - without that big name, senators Americans could remember from history.
Many of the senators were expecting another term alongside Trump. Then COVID-19 hit, the economy collapsed, and the American way of life came to a standstill.
The pressure was on McConnell, who is running for a seventh term in Kentucky with no serious risk of defeat, not to wait until after the November 3rd election.
"More important to quit the job," said McIntosh.
After McConnell has already changed the Senate rules so that the threshold of 51 votes can reach the Supreme Court nomination instead of 60, he is now ready to instigate a third Trump Justice for confirmation.
Critics have a different view.
"It won't be remembered as McConnell Court," said Stevens. "His legacy will be Donald Trump's trailblazer."
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